When whale biologist and Ocean Alliance founder Roger Payne began his career, the chief threat to whales was commercial whaling.
At that time, in the late 1960s, Payne estimates that 33,000 great whales were killed annually across the globe. That number has dropped significantly, due to the 1986 International Whaling Commission's moratorium on whaling. Although a number of countries continue to hunt whales, including Norway, Iceland and Japan — which many critics say cloaks its whaling practice under the auspice of scientific research — Payne believes that, at least for now, commercial whaling will not bring these cetaceans to the brink of extinction.
Instead, he worries about another threat: Pollution.
Payne bases this concern on Ocean Alliance's own research.
The conservation organization, launched in 1971 — and now, under Iain Kerr as its CEO, looking to move its headquarters to Gloucester on the grounds of a restored and renovated Tarr & Wonson Paint Factory — has been studying whales since its inception. Payne, himself, came into the spotlight when he co-discovered in 1967 that humpback whales "sing"¬ù to each other.
Arguably, the organization's most significant work is its massive, five-year study that measured the baseline levels of contaminants in whales around the world.
"People have known since the early '60s there was a real problem from pollutants," Payne says. "But no one had a global view of it. This was the first global view."
So, from 2000 to 2005, Ocean Alliance's 93-foot vessel, the Odyssey, snaked its way around 21 countries and 118 ports. During that time, Ocean Alliance's team gathered whale and marine life samples across the world, including more than 950 sperm whale biopsy samples.
"We looked at sperm whales because they are living at the same level of the food chain which humans are living at,"¬ù explains Payne. "So what is happening in the sperm whale is probably similar to what is happening with people."
For Ocean Alliance, the results of the survey were alarming.
"We go around the world," says Payne, "We look at sperm whales. We measure the background contaminants in them. And we discover — to our absolute horror — the concentration of a number of things."
Not only were the sperm whales exposed to common pollutants such as lead and mercury and a variety of metals such as gold and silver; they were also exposed to a wide range of chemicals such as DDT, PCBs, and fire retardants.
Moreover, one pollutant proved to be the biggest surprise: chromium.
"It was the most dramatic finding," he continues. "Chromium in its hexavalent form is a terrible carcinogen. It was the subject of the film 'Erin Brockovich.' And that is what we find in sperm whales all around the world."
Kerr, who captained the Odyssey for 10 years and is Ocean Alliance's CEO, says the study demonstrated that marine life is being hit hard on two levels.
"On the left hand, you have these compounds that are naturally occurring, but they have never occurred in the concentrations that we are now experiencing," Kerr says. "And on the right hand ,there are groups of compounds that have never existed naturally. In both cases, animals have no way to deal with them."
Enter Ocean Alliance's new study, sort of a Phase 2. This time, Ocean Alliance is teaming up with John Wise, head of the Wise Laboratory of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology at the University of Southern Maine.
Wise is a known commodity at Ocean Alliance; he and his wife, scientist Sandy Wise, analyzed the sperm whale biopsy samples from the alliance's 2000 to 2005 research.
Ocean Alliance turned to Wise because his lab studies the effects of environmental pollutants on human DNA. So how does that translate to whales?
"Our interest in DNA is that all life is dependent on it," Wise explains. "In humans, if you damage DNA you can get cancer and developmental abnormalities in children. We think in wild animals certainly the same is true, though most species don't live long enough for cancer to be a concern. The concern is pollutants in the environment are damaging DNA. And preventing the ability of the species to reproduce."
The scientists are 14 months into what Wise hopes will be a 10-year investigation. At this turn, they won't be sailing around the globe — they'll be closer to home.
Ocean Alliance and Wise will be honing their scientific eye on humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine, including those off the Gloucester coastline.
Because humpbacks live nearer to shore than sperm whales, they allow for easier and longer observational studies. So over time, for example, the team can note which female whales are reproducing, which are not — and it can answer some specific questions, like:
What are the long-term effects of pollutants on whales? Could pollutants cause developmental abnormalities? And — for a whale species already compromised in numbers — could something like chromium cause serious reproductive disorders?
Already this autumn, Payne, Kerr and Wise have led three expeditions out to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary searching for humpbacks to biopsy.
The trips have been launched from the Gloucester Marine Railways, where Ocean Alliance's 90-foot boat, the Caribana, is docked. The vessel was donated to the group this past year and is captained by Joe Boreland, who was, coincidentally, a relief captain on the Odyssey expedition and has been working for the nonprofit intermittently since 1995.
It's unclear if Ocean Alliance will be making any more expeditions this season. But both Ocean Alliance and the Wise Laboratory are heading to the Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in Tampa, Fla., later this month.
There, they'll be delivering data on another study they are conducting, this time examining the effects of the 2010 BP oil spill on marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico.
What exactly do these studies on whales and other marine mammals mean for human health?
Payne stresses that the research cannot be underestimated.
"You can say that it is probably the biggest public health threat that has ever threatened human beings," he says. "About a billion people are dependent on fish as primary source of protein. And this, I would assume, would shorten the lives of these billions of people — the fact they are taking in all these contaminants when they take in such meals."
Wise puts it more succinctly.
"We have to reduce pollutants; we are poisoning marine species," he says. "What I'd like people to connect is that when you poison the ocean, you poison yourself."
Christina M. Russo is a freelance journalist who divides her time between Gloucester and Mill Valley, Calif.